In the Mercantour National Park in the French Alps, feral wolves, recently reintroduced after centuries of extinction, have begun attacking sheep in their pens-not for food, it seems, but for sport. It’s a big news story that fascinates Commissaire principal Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg in Paris, despite his having quite other fish to fry. Meanwhile, in the mountain village of Saint-Victor-du-Mont, his ex-girlfriend, the composer-cum-plumber Camille Forestier, supports her current partner, a Canadian naturalist, in his efforts to get to the bottom of the Beast of the Mercantour. But is it really a wolf? Or something much worse?
The last two days of the week-prior to Sunday’s rest-featured the same departures, the same tensions, and then the same silence settling on the village like a lid. On Saturday afternoon Camille escaped with a long walk up to St. Peter’s Stone, a lump of rock that was supposed to cure impotence, sterility, and disappointments in love, provided you sat on it correctly. Camille had never been able to learn exactly what that meant, apparently it was vaguely embarrassing. Anyway, if the stone could deal with so many troubles, she reckoned, then it really ought to relieve her grumpiness, her doubts, her low spirits and lack of musical inspiration, which were all no more than secondary signs of impotence.
Camille took her metal-tipped walking stick and her copy of The A to Z of Tools for Trade and Craft. It was the sort of thing she most liked to leaf through at special moments-at breakfast, in her coffee break, or whenever she felt her heart sinking. Apart from that Camille had more or less ordinary tastes in reading.
Lawrence did not take well to Camille’s liking for materials and crafts, and he’d thrown the A to Z out with the trash alongside other advertising junk. It was quite enough for Camille to be a plumber, she didn’t have to drool over toolkits for every trade under the sun. Camille rescued the slightly stained catalog without making a fuss. Lawrence’s overweening hopefulness about women paradoxically made him rather conservative. He saw women as belonging to a higher level of creation, he granted them mastery over instinctual reality, and believed that their task was to raise men above mere matter. He wanted them to be sublime and not vulgar, he aspired to their being almost immaterial, and not at all pragmatic. Such idealization could hardly be squared with The A to Z of Tools for Trade and Craft. Camille didn’t dispute Lawrence’s right to have his daydreams, but she considered herself equally entitled to like tools-same as any other fuckwit, as Suzanne would have said.
She shoved the A to Z, a loaf and some water in her backpack and left the village by the flight of steps that climbed steeply toward the west. It took her nearly three hours of walking to get to the stone. You can’t earn fertility just by snapping your fingers, after all. Stones of that kind are never in your neighbor’s back yard, that would be like cheating. They’re always stuck in impossible places. When she got to the top of the rise where the worn old stone sat, Camille found herself staring at a fresh-painted sign politely warning ramblers to be wary of the guard dogs now used by local shepherds. The last paragraph ended optimistically: Do not scream and do not throw stones at the dogs. After observing strangers for a certain time, they will normally leave of their own accord. And abnormally, Camille added for symmetry, they’ll jump at my throat. She instinctively altered her grip on her metal-tipped stick and looked around. What with wolves and stray dogs, the mountainside had become a wilderness once again.
She climbed on to the stone whence you could see down over the whole valley. She could make out the white streak of the line of cars belonging to the men of the hunting party. Distant halloos wafted all the way up to her. So basically it wasn’t much quieter up here, on her own. Basically, she was a bit scared.
She got out her bread and water and the tool catalog. It was a very exhaustive listing with sections on compressed air, soldering, scaffolding, lifting gear, and heaps of other similarly promising headings. Camille read every entry from start to finish, including detailed specifications like jumbo weed hog, 1.1HP petrol engine, anti-recoil bar, low-vibration solid transmission with thrust reverse, electronic ignition, weight 5.6 kilograms. Descriptions like these-and catalogs were full of them-gave her profound intellectual satisfaction (understanding the object, how it fitted together, how it worked) as well as intense lyrical pleasure. On top of the underlying fantasy of solving all the world’s problems with a combined-cycle milling machine or a universal chuck tool. The catalog represented the hope of using a combination of power and ingenuity to overcome all of life’s shitty obstacles. A false hope, to be sure, but it was a hope nonetheless. Thus did Camille draw her vital energy from two sources: musical composition and The A to Z of Tools for Trade and Craft. Ten years younger she’d also drawn on love, but she’d really gone off that overused well. Love could give you wings, but it also knocked you off your legs, so it wasn’t much of a bargain overall. Far less than a ten-ton hydraulic jack, for instance. Broadly speaking love meant that guys stayed around when you didn’t love them and ran off when you did. The system was simple, entirely predictable, and never failed to engender either massive boredom or catastrophe. To put up with all that just for twenty days’ wonder, no, it really wasn’t worth it. Lasting love, love on which you can build, love that brings strength, nobility, sanctity, purity and succor, in a word all the stuff you believe love can be before you really try the thing out, well, that was stuff and nonsense. That’s where Camille was at, after years of try-outs, numerous mishaps and a really sore patch. A scam for the naïve and a godsend for narcissists, love was a stupid idea. Which is to say that as far as the heart was concerned, Camille was halfway to becoming a complete cynic, and she felt neither contentment nor regret about that. The thick skin she’d grown didn’t stop her loving Lawrence sincerely, after her own fashion. It allowed her to appreciate him, even admire him, and snuggle up to him. But not to entertain the slightest hope of anything. Camille had retained only immediate desires and short-range emotions, she’d bricked up all ideals, hopes, and grandeur. She expected virtually nothing from anybody, or almost. That was the only way she could love nowadays: with greediness and good will verging on utter indifference.
Camille moved further into the shade, took off her jacket, and immersed herself for two good hours in close study of a Water-cooled grinder with abrasive disk, a Turbo-charged double-protection sump pump, and other clever devices that brought her both reassurance and instruction. But her eyes kept wandering from the page and peering into the far distance. She was not entirely at ease. She was holding her walking stick tight. Suddenly she heard something rustling, and then bushes being trampled. In a flash she was up on top of the stone, her heart racing and her stick on guard. A wild boar came out of the undergrowth ten meters away, saw her standing there, and then went back into the scrub. Camille took a deep breath, buckled up her bag, and want back down the path to Saint-Victor. It was not a good time for being on the mountain.
At dusk she perched on the rim of the trough in the village square, with her legs crossed under her, and the bread and cheese laid out to one side. Awaiting the hunters’ return, she could hear the muffled thuds of disappointment and defeat. From her lookout she also saw Lawrence coming back on his motorbike. Instead of parking it on its kickstand on the square, as he usually did, he drove on this evening, passed his weary companions, and rode straight up the steep incline to the house.
Camille found him sitting on the top step, lost in thought, with his helmet still in his hand. She sat down next to him and Lawrence put his arm round her shoulders.
Lawrence shook his head.
“Found him. With his brother Porcus. Their territory is right down in the southeast. In a really nasty mood. Nasty but in clover. The guys are going to try to get tranquilizers into them.”
“So as to get a cast of their jaws.”
Camille nodded to show she understood.
“And Crassus?” she asked.
Lawrence moved his head once again.
“Not a sign,” he said.
Camille finished her piece of cheese in silence. Dragging words out of the Canadian one by one could be tiresome.
“So nobody can find the beast,” she concluded. “They can’t, and you can’t.”
“Can’t be found,” Lawrence agreed. “But she must leave a scent, the dogs ought to pick it up.”
“She must be a tough guy. Real tough.”
Camille pursed her lips. She wasn’t convinced. It was true, of course, they’d taken a hell of a long time to close in on the Beast of Gévaudan all that time ago. If what they’d got really had been the right one. There’d never been any definite proof. As a result of which the Beast still preyed on people’s minds more than two hundred years later.
“Well, well,” she mumbled with her chin on her knees, “I’m really surprised.”
Lawrence stroked her hair for a long moment.
“There’s someone who’s not surprised at all,” he said.
Camille turned to look at Lawrence. It was quite dark now, and she couldn’t see his face properly. She waited. At night Lawrence had to say more because his sign language couldn’t be seen. In the dark he could be almost fluent.
“Someone who doesn’t believe in it,” he said.
“In the hunt?”
“In the beast.”
“Don’t get it,” said Camille, who sometimes fell into involuntary imitation and compacted her own sentences by clipping the first word.
“Who doesn’t believe there is a beast,” Lawrence explained, with effort. “No beast. And who told me, confidentially.”
“I see,” said Camille. “So what does this someone believe it is, then? A dream?”
“A hallucination? A collective delusion?”
“No. Someone who does not believe there is a beast.”
“Nor savaged sheep?”
“No. Of course not. Sheep, yes. But no beast.”
Camille shrugged her shoulders in despair.
“So what does this someone believe it is, then?”
Camille sat up straight and shook her head.
“A man? Who kills sheep with his teeth? And what about those bite marks?”
Lawrence pulled a face in the dark.
“The person thinks it’s a werewolf.”
Another pause. Then Camille put her hand on Lawrence’s arm.
“A werewolf?” she whispered instinctively, as if the evil word could not be shouted out loud. “A werewolf? You mean a maniac?”
“No, no, a werewolf. There’s a person around here who thinks it really is a werewolf.”
Camille tried to make out Lawrence’s face in the dark, to see whether he was having her on, or whatever. But the Canadian’s facial features remained stony and serious.
“Are you talking about the kind of guy who turns into a monster at night with claws that grow and hair that sprouts all over and canines that stick out over his lower lip? The sort of guy who goes around eating people lost in the woods at night and then stuffs his hairy chest inside his suit jacket in the morning before going in to the office?”
“You got it,” said Lawrence, seriously. “A werewolf.”
“And we’re supposed to have one around here?”
“And it’s supposed to have eaten all those sheep since the end of winter?”
“Or the last twenty of them.”
“What about you?” Camille asked hesitantly. “Do you believe in it?”
Lawrence smiled vaguely and shrugged his shoulders.
“Good Lord, no,” he said.
Camille stood up, smiled, and waved her arms as if she was chasing shadows away.
“So who’s the oaf who told you all that?”
Camille, dumbfounded, stared hard at the Canadian still seated on the step with his helmet in his hand, and still just as calm.
“Is that true, Lawrence?”
“Yep. The other evening, when you were fixing the leak. She said it was a fucking idiot of a werewolf that was holding the whole region to ransom. That was why the tooth marks weren’t normal.”
“Suzanne said that? You really mean Suzanne?”
“Sure. The old bag.”
Camille stood there in dismay, her arms hanging loose by her side.
“What she said,” Lawrence specified, “was that the fucking idiot of a werewolf had been”-Lawrence looked for the right word-“had been awakened by the return of the wolves and that now he was taking advantage of their raids, which allowed him to cloak his own crimes under their mantle.”
“Suzanne is not crazy,” Camille muttered.
“You know very well she’s completely round the bend.”
Camille said nothing.
“If you were honest with yourself you’d admit it,” Lawrence said. “And you haven’t heard the worst of it yet,” he added.
“Don’t you want to come inside?” Camille asked. “I’m cold, really freezing.”
Lawrence looked up and then rose to his feet in a start, as if he’d only just noticed how much he’d shocked Camille. Camille loved the old bag. He put his arms round her, rubbed her back. As for himself, he’d heard so many unending folktales about old hags who turn into grizzly bears, which turn into ptarmigans which then became lost souls, that he’d long since stopped being worried by mad animal superstitions. Humankind has never been entirely rational about the wild. But here, in this cramped little land of France, everyone had lost the habit of the wild. And the main thing was that Camille loved the old bag.
“Come inside,” he said, kissing her hair.
Camille didn’t switch on the light, so she wouldn’t have to extract words one by one from Lawrence. The moon was beginning to rise, that would be enough for seeing by. She nestled into an old straw-backed armchair, drew her knees up to her chin and crossed her arms. Lawrence opened a jar of preserved grapes, poured a dozen into a cup and handed it to Camille. He drained off a glassful of the preserving spirit for himself.
“We could drown our sorrows,” he suggested.
“There’s not enough alcohol left in that jar to drown a fly.”
Camille swallowed the grapes and put the pips back into the cup. She’d have preferred to spit them into the fireplace but Lawrence did not approve of women spitting into fireplaces since they were supposed to rise above the brutality of males, including their spitting habits.
“I’m sorry about Suzanne,” he said.
“Maybe she’s read too many African folktales after all”, Camille speculated wearily.
“Do they have werewolves in Africa?”
Lawrence spread out his hands, palm upward.
“They must. Maybe they’re not wolves, though, but man-jackals, or hyena-men.”
“Let’s have the rest,” said Camille.
“She knows who it is.”
“Who the werewolf is?”
“Massart, the slaughterhouse guy.”
“Massart?” Camille almost shouted. “Why Massart, for heaven’s sake?”
Lawrence rubbed his cheek, not knowing what to say.
“Come on, let it out.”
“Because Massart is smooth-skinned.”
Camille held out her cup like a machine and Lawrence spooned in another serving of grapes in cognac.
“What, you mean no body hair?”
“Have you seen the man?”
“He’s got no hair.”
“I don’t get it,” said Camille, obstinately. “He’s got hair on his head like you and me. He’s got black bangs right down to his eyes.”
“I said body hair, Camille. He’s got no hair on his body.”
“You mean on his arms and legs and chest?”
“That’s right. He’s as smooth-skinned as a choirboy. Haven’t seen it close up, but apparently he doesn’t even need to shave.”
Camille screwed up her eyes the better to see a picture of Massart standing beside his van the other day. She recalled the pallor of his forearms and face, which struck such a contrast with the swarthy skins of everyone else. Well, maybe yes, he might also have no body hair.
“And so what?” she said. “What’s that bloody well got to do with it?”
“You’re not really into werewolves, are you?”
“You wouldn’t know one if you saw one walking down the street.”
“Nope. And what would tell me that some poor old geezer was a werewolf?”
“That’s how. A werewolf is an unhairy man. You know why? Because his wolf-coat is on the inside of his skin.”
“Is that some kind of a joke?”
“Go read the old books written in your own old country. You’ll see. It’s all there in black and white. And there are loads of country-folk who know all the lore. The old bag included.”
“You mean Suzanne.”
“And do they all know about the inside-outside nonsense?”
“It’s not nonsense. It’s the mark of the werewolf. The only mark. He’s got his hair on the inside because he’s an inside-out person. At night he turns himself round and his hairy coat reappears.”
“Which makes Massart nothing more than a fur coat worn with the silk lining on the outside?”
“If you like.”
“What about the teeth? Are they reversible too? Where does he store them during the day?”
Lawrence put his glass down on the table and turned toward Camille.
“Look, Camille, there’s no point getting excited. And I’m not bloody well responsible for any of this. It’s the old bag who’s saying it.”
“You mean Suzanne.”
“Of course,” said Camille. “I’m sorry.”
Camille stood up, took the grape jar and poured the last dregs into her cup. One grape after another soon soothed stiff muscles. They’d been preserved by Suzanne. In her backroom at Les Écarts she had a still where she made spirits-her “fire-water,” she called it-in quantities way above the maximum allowance for vine growers. “I don’t give a damn for any bloody maximum allowances,” she said. Nor did she give so much as a tinker’s fart for all other allowances, exemptions, taxes, quotas, insurance policies, safety guidelines, sell-by dates, communal burdens or parish meetings. Buteil, her farm manager, made sure the business didn’t wander too far away from the boundaries of legal tolerance and Watchee dealt with veterinary health. How could a woman like that, Camille wondered, a woman who could stamp on social norms as easily as she would barge through a barn door, how could she believe in something that came so dangerously close to being widely shared? She screwed the cap back on the jar and paced up and down, clutching her cup. Unless Suzanne, by dint of standing up to the rules of the collectivity, had ended up creating her own order of the world. Her own order, her own laws, her own explanations of how the world worked. While everyone else went chasing after a monster animal, marching to the same drummer, in thrall to the same idea, she, Suzanne Rosselin, stood her ground as the undying opponent of whatever is unanimously agreed. She defied consensus and used a different logic-no matter whether it was good logic or bad as long as it wasn’t the same as everybody else’s.
“She’s crazy,” said Lawrence to sum up, as if he’d been following Camille’s train of thought. “She’s living in her own world.”
“So are you. You live in the snow with your bears.”
“Except that I’m not crazy. Maybe I should be but actually I’m not. That’s the difference between me and the old bag. She doesn’t give a damn. She doesn’t give a damn about stinking of lanolin.”
“Leave off about the smell, Lawrence.”
“I’ll not leave off about anything. She’s dangerous. Think of Massart.”
Camille passed her hand across her face. Lawrence was right. If Suzanne was off the wall with her werewolves, that was her affair. You can be crazy whatever way you want. But pointing the finger at someone else was quite another kettle of fish.
“Because he’s smooth-skinned,” Lawrence repeated patiently.
“No, that won’t do,” said Camille, a little wearily. “Apart from the hair. Forget the bloody hair. Why do you think she’s getting at him? He’s quite like her-a loner, out on his own, and unloved. She ought to be on his side.”
“Quite. He’s a bit too much like her. They plough the same furrow. She has to get rid of him.”
“Stop thinking grizzly bears.”
“But that’s how things work. They’re a pair of fierce competitors.”
“What did she tell you about Massart? Body hair aside.”
“Nothing. Soliman came in and she shut up. Didn’t learn anything more.”
“You picked up a fair bit all the same.”
“More than enough.”
“What’s to be done?”
Lawrence came closer to Camille and put his hands on her shoulders.
“I’ll tell you what my father always said.”
“OK,” said Camille.
“Steer clear and keep your trap shut.”
“Sure. And then?”
“We stay mum. But if by mischance people outside of Les Écarts got wind of the old bag’s claim, then it’d be a bad deal for Massart. You know what people did to suspected werewolves, not more than a couple of hundred years ago, in your country?”
“Tell me. Might as well know it all.”
“They sliced them open from neck to crotch to see if the hair really was on the inside. Then it was a bit too late to say sorry about the mistake.”
Lawrence gripped Camille’s shoulders.
“It mustn’t go an inch beyond the fence of her bloody sheep-farm,” he hammered into her head.
“I don’t think folk as are brainless as you imagine. People wouldn’t jump on Massart. They know full well that the killer is a wolf.”
“You’re right. In normal times you would be completely right. But you’re forgetting one thing: this is no ordinary wolf. I saw its bite-marks. And you can believe me, Camille, when I tell you this is one hell of a beast, like I’ve never seen in my life.”
“I believe you,” Camille whispered.
“And I won’t be the only person to know that for very much longer. The lads aren’t blind, they’re even quite knowledgeable, despite what the old bag says. They’ll know soon enough. They’ll know they’re dealing with something out of the ordinary, something they’ve not seen before. Do you see, Camille? Do you see the risk? Something not normal. So they’ll be afraid. And that’ll be their downfall. Fear will make them believe in idols and burn loners at the stake. And if the old bag’s gossip gets around, they’ll hunt down Massart and slice him open from throat to crotch.”
Camille gave a taut nod. Lawrence had never said so much at one time before. He wouldn’t let off, as if he was trying to protect her. Camille felt his warm hands on her back.
“That’s why we absolutely must find the animal, dead or alive. If they find it, it’ll be dead, and if I find it, it’ll still be alive. But until them, mum’s the word.”
“What about Suzanne?”
“We’ll go to see her tomorrow and tell her to keep her trap shut.”
“She doesn’t like being given orders.”
“But she likes me.”
“She might have told someone else already.”
“I don’t think so. I really don’t.”
“Because she thinks the inhabitants of Saint-Victor are fuckwits one and all. I’m different because I’m a foreigner. And she also told me because I know about wolves.”
“Why didn’t you say anything to me on Wednesday evening when you got back from Les Écarts?”
“I thought the trackers would raise the beast and that all this would be forgotten. I didn’t want to demolish your view of Suzanne for nothing.”
“She’s a nutcase,” Lawrence said gently.
“I’m fond of her all the same.”
From L’Homme à l’envers. Published 2002 by J’ai Lu. Forthcoming 2005 from The Harvill Press, an imprint of Random House. Excerpted by permission of The Harvill Press. All rights reserved.